A Short History Of Alternative Country Music

Uncle tupelo

Warning: Language

(Trying To Define) Alt-Country And The Punk-Rock/Country Fusion

There’s always been darkness on the edge of the “country music town,” so to speak. For one, it’s hard to pin it down to one exact definition. Travis Tritt, for example, may speak of fighting for true country music, but he was also an artist who pulled from rock music back in his day, a genre that almost killed country music in the ’50s!

On that note, though, from the rock ‘n’ roll tendencies of Elvis Presley or the Everly Brothers to the singer/songwriter invasion of the ’70s that included artists like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and so many others (along with many other time periods), country music has always had its alternative side. Even today, the invasion of, say, Tyler Childers, Margo Price and Jason Isbell is a testament to the lifeblood of that movement.

This brings us to alt-country, a movement and a sub-genre that, while properly coined in the ’90s, was arguably already part of country music’s sound throughout its history anyway.

The moniker itself doesn’t even tip its hat to country music. During the ’80s and ’90s, “alternative” was a product of the rock world, thanks to the success of bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M., among others. In some ways, it was a badge of honor; in others, it was purely a marketing term.

Of course, those aforementioned bands certainly share a lot in common with the artists of the alt-country movement, namely in how they moved from struggling on independent labels and college radio stations to rising to the top of the Billboard charts. These acts turned underground into mainstream.

In 2015, then Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton said, “if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Chet Flippo said something similar in 1996 when he said, “if you’re not played on mainstream country radio, you’re alt-country.” This, ironically enough, is humorously seen as a definition of alt-country.

On the note of rock bands, the big instigator behind the alt-country movement was punk-rock. It’s not quite as far-fetched as it seems. Punk-rock is about taking music down to a grassroots level. Artists didn’t have to be master performers, but they had to have passion. Country music, especially older country music, was about emotional expressions that were simple and honest. Both genres shared a do-it-yourself spirit with musicians who were amazingly expressive, despite lacking any degree of professional training.

The Beginning (No Depression)

Alt-country traces its roots even further than when it was coined as a movement (which will be addressed later), but for all intents and purposes, the movement “started” with Uncle Tupelo, a band made of high-school buddies from Illinois. Again, that aforementioned drive and passion evident in both punk-rock and country shows its roots here, as all three members were just friends who shared a love for music.

Comprised of Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, their 1990 debut album, No Depression, showed their hard-hitting punk-rock influences with slow, twangy ballads that were cut from the country music cloth. The title track itself was originally a Carter Family song from the Depression era. It would also go on to become the name for an Internet fan club chat folder on America Online. That same chat group would go on to become a bimonthly magazine called No Depression, which featured coverage on this alt-country movement. At the beginning, “No Depression” was even used to describe the music of this movement made by Uncle Tupelo, Robbie Fulks, Lucinda Williams and more. Kevin Welch had tried to promote the term “Western Beat,” but it didn’t catch on.

In 1994, the independent Chicago record label Bloodshot Records released a compilation CD titled For A Life Of Sin: A Compilation Of Insurgent Chicago Country, including artists such as their own Fulks, Freakwater and the Bottle Rockets. College-radio publication The Gavin Report had also begun tracking a new radio format called Americana. Along the way, names such as twangcore, the silly y’alternative and country and Westerburg (an indie-rock golden boy) had all come to try and describe this new world of artists who didn’t fit in either the mainstream or hard-country mold.

But Wait A Minute, That Sounds Just Like …

While the concept of blending country music with punk-rock was, arguably, a new concept (spoiler alert – it wasn’t), the fusion of bare-bones rock ‘n’ roll and country certainly wasn’t. Artists such as Gram Parsons and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had already brought country influences into rock ‘n’ roll circles just decades before. Jeff Tweedy has even spoken of his love for Parson’s project, the Flying Burrito Brothers, saying, “when we came across them, it opened a door in a way a lot of other stuff hadn’t. It’s very much country music, but Parsons is writing from his perspective, his world.”

(Further reading: The Epic Scene Of Country-Rock)
Indeed, Parsons acted as somewhat of a leader for this movement, despite being dead for 20 years by this point. He was a rocker with genuine Nashville aspirations; he was the kid who stood on the sidelines, playing steel-guitar soaked melodies and fantasizing about performing on the Grand Ole Opry; he was also someone the industry had never once accepted. This was another link to the past that modern figures of this movement related to deeply. Then again, it’s debatable who actually wanted to be embraced by the industry. Robbie Fulks’ “Fuck This Town” certainly doesn’t seem to suggest a pining for Nashville acceptance. To be fair, though, it was written after Fulks tried writing mainstream country hits for a local publishing company for two years.

Neil Young was another inspiration for this movement, as were Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and other outlaw-movement figures. Another notable part of this movement was the link between Los Angeles, California and country music. Of course, the music already had a long history in the region with numerous cowboy movie stars and western swing bands emanating from there.

The punk-rock scene of the ’80s, however, was a home to musical experimentation. From roots-rock stylings of Los Lobos to psycho-blues bands such as Tex and the Horseheads and the Gun Club, some of this stuff found its way into the scene eventually.

Even a few bonafide country musicians such as Dwight Yoakam knew of the scene. Yoakam got his start honing his craft in Los Angeles, away from the Urban Cowboy movement that was going on in country music at the time. He played punk-rock venues and clubs with acts like X and The Blasters.

It All Points Back To Uncle Tupelo

Despite the aforementioned movement in Los Angeles, there wouldn’t be a No Depression magazine or other versions of alt-country during the ’90s without Uncle Tupelo. For anyone who denied country music was a part of the band’s blood, their third album, March 16-20, 1992, would surely counter that nicely. On this album, one will find traditional old-time folk and country songs such as the Louvin Brothers’ “Great Atomic Power.”

Sometimes these bands sounded more traditional (ironically) than the average act of the ’90s, and in other ways it was hard to box certain acts in.

The Problem With Labels + The Way Forward

By the mid-’90s, alt-country was home to an impressive variety of musicians. It wasn’t just made up of “punks” digging for their roots. It came to be the home of musicians who hadn’t found a home in country music, despite loving it.

Despite it housing a variety of artists, however, not all artists were happy with the label. For instance, Dale Watson didn’t think there was anything “alternative” about his brand of country music that paid homage to Hank Williams, Johnny Paycheck and Lefty Frizzell. Despite mainstream country music tipping its hat to the genre’s roots more than ever before, there was still a focus on finding younger blood; Watson didn’t fit the mold. Instead of Country America, Watson’s name appeared in the pages of No Depression.

Of course, certain artists made their mark on the mainstream in some fashion. Before launching his independent record label, E-Squared and churning out classic after classic during the mid-’90s, Steve Earle had enjoyed a minor career in mainstream country, even if he never really fit in either. Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” which appeared on her 1988 self-titled album, was a country chart hit for Mary Chapin Carpenter.

As a testament to alt-country being home to the rejected, it also embraced older country music legends more than mainstream country music did during this time. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series received more attention from rock music publications than anywhere else. Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall both received tribute albums in the form of Tulare Dust and Real, respectively. The artists who paid homage to them included Dave Alvin, Joe Henry, Iris Dement, Whiskeytown and Calexico, among others. Even Don Williams, Townes Van Zandt and Hank Thompson have been featured favorably in No Depression. During this time, if one were to question which fans were more likely to explore country music’s history, it would have likely been an indie-rock fan looking on the outside in.

Of course, there’s never been a “Nirvana” moment as far as the country music charts are concerned with alt-country, and there likely never will be. Still, the seeds of independent thought and freedom are what tie the unlikely genres of country and punk together, and its influence is still a major part of what’s called Americana today.

3 thoughts on “A Short History Of Alternative Country Music

  1. Well done Zachary! An excellent essay of the artists, CEO types and circumstances which brought us what we call Alt Country as well as progressive bluegrass . . . or newgrass. I prefer to leave the labeling of this music to the marketing depts but alas am forced to attempt a description what folks are hearing. Thank you, very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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